Prior to moving to Japan, my knowledge of sushi was mainly limited to the elaborate makizushi (rolled sushi) available at most American Japanese restaurants. Unsurprisingly, these baroque concoctions of mayonnaise, avocado, and processed crab always left me feeling curiously unsatisfied and perplexed. In high school, a friend had introduced me to nigirizushi, but even then my palate was unable to find much pleasure in the unusual combination of sweet, salty, raw, and cooked.
During my first week of work at a large university hospital near Tokyo, my employer – the head of the orthopedics department – took me out to lunch at a family-owned sushi restaurant by the train station. After removing our shoes at the door, we seated ourselves on zabuton cushions at the counter, tucking our legs into the hidden compartment beneath the floor. I sat entranced as the owners’ son patted out fingers of warm, seasoned rice for nigirizushi. He worked in smooth, rhythmic motions, quickly dipping his hands in water before shaping the shari (vinegared rice). An assistant stood nearby, deftly slicing fish into perfect, tapered pieces. Soon we were presented with two ceramic platters, each of which held no fewer than ten pieces of sushi. Out of some mix of deference and ignorance, I followed my dining companion’s lead, beginning with the mild, white fish, moving on to more oily, flavorful varieties like mackerel, and finishing with the tamagoyaki (a sweet, layered omelet) and a nori-wrapped round of rice topped with translucent beads of ikura (salmon roe).
The fish, of course, was remarkable, yet the rice was perhaps more so: each perfectly cooked, unbroken grain was graced with a sheen imparted by a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and salt. Suddenly, I became aware of the subtle interplay of flavors, textures, and temperatures between the briny, cool fish and barely warm, seasoned rice. No longer simply an excuse to eat raw fish, sushi revealed itself as a more complex food than I had ever imagined. Over the next several months, I learned about other, more humble iterations of sushi, some of which lacked fish entirely. At the most basic level is inarizushi, sushi rice stuffed into sweet tofu skins. Chirashizushi, while considerably more elaborate in presentation, is still suitable for serving at home for a special occasion, while futomaki, (a hefty roll stuffed with cucumber, kanpyō (simmered dried gourd), pickled ginger, and tamagoyaki) makes a convincing case for vegetarian sushi.
From its origins as quick, cheap, fuel-efficient nourishment for the masses of Edo (old Tokyo), sushi has undergone a remarkable transformation into an icon of one of the world’s great cuisines. If glitzy mega-restaurants like New York’s Morimoto suggest sushi’s status as a highly sought-after luxury, Japan’s famous kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants argue the opposite: that sushi can remain true to its roots as the original fast food. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, is the case made by the recent documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Here, sushi is both humble craft – the product of highly trained hands – and an almost spiritual pursuit, a single-minded quest to achieve perfection in a single bite. At 30,000 yen a pop with a month-long wait list, a meal at Jiro’s restaurant is far from realistic for most of us. Thankfully, delicious sushi needn’t require such sacrifices, as attested to by this recipe: a delicious example of sushi’s more humble side.
Mazesushi – 混ぜ寿司
Adapted from Everyday Harumi by Harumi Kurihara
For this dish (whose name literally means “mixed sushi”), carrot and mushroom-studded rice is garnished with sake-simmered shrimp, julienned egg crepe (kinshi tamago), and toasted nori. While the shrimp are optional, their pale pink color adds a lovely contrast to the deep-green nori and pale yellow threads of egg.
Serves 4 – 5
For the rice:
320 grams (scant 1 3/4 cups) Japanese rice
100 ml (about 1/3 cup) rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
For the vegetables:
45 ml (about 3 tablespoons) dashi
1 tablespoon shōyu
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon mirin
100 grams (about 2 medium) carrots, peeled and cut into 3-4 cm (about 1/2-inch) julienne
100 grams (about 5 large) shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
For the sake-simmered shrimp (optional):
16 medium shrimp, cleaned with tails left on
1 tablespoon sake
Juice of 1/2 lemon
For the kinshi tamago (egg crepes):
4 medium eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
About 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 -2 sheets toasted nori, torn into small pieces, for garnish
Wash the rice well and place in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan with 400 ml (about 1 3/4 cups) water. Let sit while you prepare the dressing, vegetables, and shrimp.
Combine the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer; cook just until sugar and salt dissolve. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool to room temperature.
Combine the dashi, shōyu, sugar, and mirin in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the carrots and mushrooms and simmer, stirring occasionally, until carrots are just tender. Transfer to a small bowl.
Place the shrimp in a small saucepan with the sake and a little boiling water. Simmer gently until shrimp are just cooked, about 1 minute, then cover and let sit until partially cooled, about 3 minutes. Drain and toss with the lemon juice.
Bring the rice and water to a boil. Cover and turn the heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated, then remove from heat and let sit for another 10 minutes. Gently fold in the vinegar mixture with a rice paddle or broad wooden spoon. (To ensure the rice doesn’t stick, dip the paddle or spoon in water before stirring). Gently fold in the carrots and mushrooms.
Meanwhile, make the egg crepes. Beat the eggs with the sugar, sake, and salt. If desired, strain to create an even mixture. Heat about 1 teaspoon oil in a sauté pan over medium-low heat. (There should be just a thin film of oil on the bottom of the pan – too much creates a soggy crepe. If necessary, mop up excess oil with a paper towel, which you can then use to grease the pan for the next crepe.) Pour in just enough of the egg mixture to coat the bottom of the pan in a thin layer. As soon as the crepe has cooked, remove from the pan and set aside to cool. Repeat with the remaining egg mixture. When all the crepes have been cooked, cut into thin julienne strips.
To assemble, pile the rice on plates and garnish with the shrimp, nori, and kinshi tamago.